Sunday, March 23, 2008

[Updated] The ethical dilemmas of citizen self-mobilization

Over at Soob's joint there is an interesting discussion going on concerning the ethics of certain types of cyber-militia activities. This is an important discussion because as technology makes it possible for citizens to do the kinds of things that in the past would have been the province of government, we need to delineate where the boundaries should be located. I had intended to post this over there as a comment, but had a problem with the comment function, so I'll post it here as well in the event that it didn't go through over there:

One of the issues we need to consider is legitimacy. A key method of taking down a rival movement is "delegitimization." We of course seek to delegitimize the radical islamists; the radical left has for decades been seeking to delegitimize us. The idea of citizen self-mobilization has yet to be actualized to its full potential and we are in at the beginning of something that could prove to be a fascinating social phenomenon. But we don't want to score an "own goal" and delegitimize ourselves by engaging in illegal activity or allow ourselves to be branded as vigilantes. The perception of what we are doing is as important as what we do. If we are perceived as being a bunch of kooks and extremists then the idea that citizens can act outside of government and have a positive influence in the war of ideas will be dismissed and marginalized and nothing good will be achieved and we will miss the opportunity that is available to us.

The issue isn't whether we should do something, obviously we all believe that we can and should otherwise we wouldn't be here discussing this. But rather what kinds of activities are appropriate for us to engage in. I'm not sure exactly how the whole taking down jihadi websites thing became the prominent citizen-directed activity, but it does seem that the ethical and legal issues are directly related to it. And my immediate response is, "Doctor, doctor it hurts when I do this." "Don't do that." There's a vast realm of activities that will never bring up any of these ethical/legal issues, that will never bring you in contact with government, that will legitimately operate within our freedoms of speech, the press and association. I would recommend that we direct our efforts in those areas.

Remember what the military information support team in the Philippines did: they invented a superhero and created a comic book. No ethical/legal dilemmas there. Just recognizing an opportunity and being creative. There are all kinds of creative things that we can do in every possible media. Thousands of citizens can be recognizing those kinds of opportunities and acting on their own initiative and they won't have to worry about "fratricide" with our own LE and IC folks.

One of the basic ideas behind citizen self-mobilization is the freedom of action citizens have to bypass the government middleman and engage in strategic communications activities on their own. The key is that citizens can act independent of government. Therefore it doesn't make a lot of sense to choose a course of action that leads us into conflict with government. Michael Moore produces films that have greater impact than our government's entire strategic communications operations, but he is simply exercising his freedom as a citizen. We too can simply exercise our freedoms as citizens and never have to worry about government. So I guess my point is that I see this ethical/legal dilemma as self-created and ultimately unnecessary because there are so many other things we can do. Things that have the potential to have a greater long term impact than just temporarily shutting down a website.

UPDATE: I just wanted to add a note on to what I posted last night. I'm not saying people shouldn't go after these websites. Or that doing so can't have positive results. It's not my place to tell people what to do. If it is legal then you can do whatever you want. One of the advantages of citizen-directed activity is that knowledge is distributed and local and you don't have to submit your actions to the approval of some bureaucracy. Going after websites is not something that interests me and so it is easy for me to suggest a kind of "Alexander and the Gordian Knot" solution. No doubt others will find that unsatisfying. But if you are someone who is motivated to do something, but you are not committed this specific method of action, then I would suggest considering options that won't involve these ethical/legal issues.

7 comments:

M├╝nzenberg said...

Phil, this is thoughtful and well written post. I'll start with some queries I have and end with some praise.

I don't know the exact cause for the primary action of taking down websites, entities, videos etc. but Cannoneer argues the concept from a counter-propaganda perspective here: http://cannoneerno4.wordpress.com/2007/10/11/irregular-restrictive-measures-blogospheric-computer-network-attack/

Given that taking down websites are one of the primary counter-propaganda methods out there, the problem I raised at the time was mainly to do with that method.

Your two premises that there are other, more broader, methods that don't entail ethical/legal problems and that citizens can exercise their freedoms separate from government are great and I am in agreeance with you.

I am going to disagree with a few things for the next few paragraphs, not because of the sake of arguing, but because blogs don't really allow us to get to the heart of the matter on certain topics without a full discussion, so I'm hoping you can illuminate my concerns.

The specific example of the comics doesn't support that specific premise. The group that created it is within the system itself and wouldn't need to worry that much about the ethical dilemmas that I raised (non-state versus state, whether the example is sub-state actors within the state). Secondly, I understand you are using that specific example of the comics as a method that cyber-militias can use, so that somewhat negates my above point. It's a great example for the groups to use. However, is it void of ethical/legal issues?

Broadly we are talking about propaganda, more specifically we are talking about speech acts. Words can make things to be the case in the real world. They create actions. For example a priest can marry a couple with his words. A referee can send off a player with his words. Words can also influence vast audiences. Would we be fighting the Islamic hordes on the virtual/ideological level if we didn't believe that their words and pictures did something to our domestic audiences?

So the words we create in opposition to the Islamic hordes are going to have effects and consequences that we may be responsible for in the chain of events. A good example is riling up the Islamic bee nest with Muhammad cartoons. It serves the purpose of making Islamic extremists look like fools to our domestic audiences, but people, and soldiers from our countries, are killed in response.

I may have gone off on a little bit of a tangent here. I guess my point is I think your premise about legitimacy is correct. However, the mere act of creating propaganda, even if it is seen as legitimate, could infact have adverse consequences. There was a news article on the psychology of rumor I linked to the on the blog recently which stated that the more mythbusting groups like snopes debunk a myth, the more in the minds of some people that myth becomes truthful. That psychological account somewhat supports cannoneers version of shutting down the websites rather than engaging in a propaganda war where some audiences will think the propaganda and psyops, if they can identify it as such, underscores the truthfulness of their worldviews.

One other minor thought.

If certain aspects of cyber-militias are going to mix it up with terrorist networks. Whether that be shutting them down, countering their propaganda or the myriad of other actions. Then it is possible we are going to enter the same virtual and real networks that state actors are possibly monitoring or taking part in. Therefore we can't really operate in a vacuum from state actors in such an environment. They are possibly going to be there whether we know it or not. This of course pre-supposes what environments cyber-militias will operate in. Cannoneer has also defined some blogs as a form of cyber-militias, PIST and virtual counterterrorism. Also, the major premise of citizen free will which you raised negates this and most of the other problems (and it is a powerful argument that I would have to dwell on for sometime to see any problem with).

Finishing up, You have brought up a number of points I had not considered. The most important being broadening the range of actions the groups could take. You also brought up the point of citizens exercising freedoms separate to government which had been raised on the Soobdujour post, but you put it in a clear and succinct way that is quite convincing. They are both excellent points and this is an excellent blog post.

Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Illegitimi non carborundum

The word "vigilante" will be used by our enemies no matter what we do. I say embrace your vigilantism and the word will join racist, sexist, homophobe and bigot in the liberal litany.

Vigilantes supposedly "take the law into their own hands." Vigilantes in American history were common on the meat space frontier because courts and law enforcement either did not exist or were ineffective. Much the same situation exists now in cyber space. "There's no law west of Dodge City, and no God west of the Pecos." And I don't really want .gov or Network Solutions controlling the internet and removing what I don't like. I'd rather round up a posse and remove it ourselves.

The lawlessness of cyberspace is also the freedom of cyberspace.

phil said...

Hey guys, thanks for the comments. The real world is keeping me busy today, I'll have some comments tomorrow.

phil said...

Hey Munzenberg,

The specific example of the comics doesn't support that specific premise. The group that created it is within the system itself and wouldn't need to worry that much about the ethical dilemmas that I raised (non-state versus state, whether the example is sub-state actors within the state). Secondly, I understand you are using that specific example of the comics as a method that cyber-militias can use, so that somewhat negates my above point. It's a great example for the groups to use.

Yes, my point in using that example is that many of the methods that gov't itself is using are not the special province of gov't. Citizens could just as easily use them too, and should use them. We have at our disposal all of the media and political activism tools that we can use to wage the war of ideas and it would just be the kinds of normal activities that citizens do every day, but geared to winning the war of ideas.

If certain aspects of cyber-militias are going to mix it up with terrorist networks. Whether that be shutting them down, countering their propaganda or the myriad of other actions. Then it is possible we are going to enter the same virtual and real networks that state actors are possibly monitoring or taking part in. Therefore we can't really operate in a vacuum from state actors in such an environment. They are possibly going to be there whether we know it or not.

Actually I would invert this: Our government's main purpose is to guarantee our rights including those of free speech, press and assembly, so when the government engages in propaganda or strategic communications it may come into conflict with its own citizens exercising their inherent rights. While government needs to have a strategic communications capability, it must perform its tasks within an environment of millions of citizens exercising their rights. Therefore the burden is on government to accommodate itself to that environment. And because advances in communications and other technologies have made it possible for citizens to have a strategic impact in the war of ideas, that environment is loud, noisy, dynamic, fast-moving, creative, and elusive--so much so that it is just not possible for government bureaucracies to compete. This is why I believe that it is necessary for citizens to act in order to win the war of ideas.

When it comes to shutting down websites and related activity, I'm not saying that that is wrong (as long as you're not breaking the law), but rather that if it does interfere with LE and IC operations then it may be in our best interests as citizens to defer to government in this case and direct our efforts in to other areas. Again I'm not saying you shouldn't try to go after jihadi websites, I just wanted to offer some things to think about that I hadn't seen mentioned and to emphasize that if the ethical and legal issues that you brought up in your post are a problem for you then there are other options available where you can make a contribution without having to deal with those specific issues. My own interests though are taking me in a different direction. My goal is to get into documentary filmmaking and other media activities and try to make my contribution to the war of ideas there.

phil said...

Hey Cannoneer,

I get where you're coming from and I too appreciate the "appeal of the posse" (as Seinfeld once put it), but "vigilante" is not a word that has positive connotations among the general population. You yourself have recognized that your own people are your target audience. So it doesn't really matter whether that word may have positive connotations for you, what matters is whether it has positive or negative connotations for your target audience. While the action of going after jihadi websites targets the jihadis, the message of that act goes out to our own people as well as the jihadis. If that act is interpreted negatively as vigilantism then that may cancel out whatever good you have done. As I said above, I'm not saying you shouldn't do this stuff, but I wanted to offer some things to think about.

phil said...

I haven't been following the Anonymous phenomenon and so I was reading some of the related posts at Global Guerrillas and came across the quote below that I thought was relevant to our discussion"

...when the opinions of Mark Bunker that the illegal aspects of anonymous actions (DDOS etc) were tactically efficient but strategically detrimental entered the viral consciousness, the methodology drastically changed - to real life protests organised over a number of countries, and to information dissemination tactics aimed at the public.

tactically efficient but strategically detrimental

That's basically what I was trying to say above. A specific method of action may be successful and have a positive impact at the tactical level, but have a negative impact at the strategic level.

So what was their solution to this dilemma?

the methodology drastically changed - to real life protests organised over a number of countries, and to information dissemination tactics aimed at the public.

They adopted legal methods of action that would have a greater chance of succeeding on the strategic level. So that's pretty much the gist of what I've been trying to say

Cannoneer No. 4 said...

Cyber vigilantes foil gadget thief